Why Mindfulness Matters Today
Over the past few years, more and more people have begun to discover why mindfulness matters and more specifically why it matters today. In our chaotic world of busy schedules and endless notifications we need to figure out how to find peace and happiness amidst all the noise. Practicing mindfulness is the best way to do that—in fact, even five minutes a day will radically improve your life. Everyone from teachers to therapists to CEOs to sports coaches are seeing the extraordinary benefits of applying mindfulness as a key component to succeeding at your goals and living a good life. Now, this might seem like some magic pill that’s too good to be true, but by learning how it works you can see why mindfulness is so effective and how you can use it to feel healthier, happier and more grounded every day.
So what exactly is mindfulness? Its a practice which allows us to do two things: focus on being fully present in the moment and accepting the feelings, emotions and sensations we have in that moment. Lets look at each of these aspects and see how they can improve how we feel.
Being Present in the Moment
The idea of being present in the moment might seem a bit abstract, but it becomes clearer when you think about how we normally live our lives. When you think about the amount of stuff our mind has to process throughout the day its really astounding. Whether we’re rushing through the things we need to get done, dealing with the people in our lives, watching funny videos on our phones, or answering emails, our minds are always working a million miles an hour. From the moment we wake up to the second we go to sleep we’re in react mode, dealing with a constant stream of information from the outside world, the thoughts and emotions inside our heads, and the way our bodies feel. But usually we don’t have any strategy for dealing with all this stuff. Often, we barely notice how we truly feel. We simply react and keep
But mindfulness gives us a different approach: by stepping back, taking a deep breath, and being fully present in the moment, we can approach things from a state of calm and acceptance that allows us to deal with all stuff that goes through our mind in a healthy and peaceful way. This is why mindfulness is so closely associated with meditation. When you meditate you carve out a bit of time for yourself to let go and be present, letting whatever thoughts, feelings and sensations you feel simply occur and fade away naturally. The key is to stay in the moment and focus on the present while this is happening.
But mindfulness is not just for meditating, its an approach that can be brought to any situation. By practicing mindfulness we can focus on what is right in front of us. Imagine a get together with friends. So often instead of enjoying their company and fully engaging in the conversation we’re distracted by our phones, something in our personal lives, or a hundred other possible things. But by being present we can truly enjoy that moment we have with them. And this approach can be applied to eating a great meal, listening to a great song, or taking a walk. Whatever you’re doing can be approached with a mindful attitude, transforming something we normally do without thinking into something wonderful as we learn to treat the situation with the attention it deserves.
Accepting Our Emotions, Thoughts, and Feelings
Of course, the reason so many of us find difficulty staying present isn’t simply because we’re distracted or busy, but also because a lot of the thoughts, feelings and emotions we have are unpleasant and upset us. That’s where we get to the second aspect of mindfulness, which is the ability to accept how we feel without judgment. Usually, when we have negative thoughts or are upset we react by fighting back against these feelings in ways that cause us to actually become more upset. We use one of our many defense mechanisms: sometimes we dwell on the negative feelings, sometimes we deflect them only for them to come back stronger later, sometimes we even get angry at ourselves for having these thoughts and feelings in the first place. What all these ways of dealing with these unpleasant sensations have in common is that we’re judging them as something negative that we need to deal with by controlling them or fighting against them. But even though these defense mechanisms are natural and can even feel good in the moment they only end up causing us more stress.
But having a mindful approach to negative thoughts and feelings allows us to accept them. This isn’t to say that we have to pretend that everything’s ok or that nothings wrong, but it allows us to see them for what they are and approach them with a sense of calm. Even though it might seem like it would be more painful to accept the negative thoughts and feelings rather than fight them off, it actually does the opposite. Our minds and bodies learn how to better cope with what stresses us out rather than feeling alarmed every time we experience something unpleasant. We’re never going to fully avoid negative situations or feelings, but mindfulness teaches us the best way to deal with them.
How Mindfulness Works
What happens during meditation shows us how the mindful approach helps us deal with the distractions and unpleasant feelings that consistently take us out of being in the moment. When you sit still and try to be present you’ll feel a ton of thoughts, feelings and emotions rush by. Naturally, this makes you antsy and uncomfortable because naturally you want to do something about them. But with mindfulness we take a different approach and simply become observers of how we feel rather than try to fight or fix anything.
Imagine you were calmly sitting in a chair on the side of a highway. As you look at the road in front of you, you’re not startled by the cars that rush by, they simply come and go in and out of your view while you’re relaxing. In mindfulness meditation you treat each emotion or feeling or sensation that pops into your mind in as if it were one of the cars that comes into view and then disappears out of sight. One car might be a bird chirping outside your window, another might be a feeling of hunger, and another might be a sense of worry that you have to pay your phone bill. The mindfulness practice allows you to simply let the things that come into your mind enter your awareness and then fade away. Usually, we’d get distracted by the bird chirping, or start to worry about the phone bill, but with mindfulness meditation you simply live with these thoughts and feelings instead of doing anything with them.
This practice does a few things besides training you to be more comfortable sitting still and simply being present. First, it gets rid of the myth that simply having negative thoughts or getting distracted is a bad thing that needs to be avoided. You often hear people say that they don’t meditate because they always seem to get distracted by how they feel or things around them, but the fact is that these distractions are inevitable. Things are going to pop into your mind and that’s nothing to get upset or frustrated about. Mindfulness just changes our relationship to these thoughts and feelings and teaches us to be patient with them as they arise and as they go away on their own. And if you find yourself forgetting to be present and becoming distracted by one of these thoughts or getting upset over feeling something negative, you simply realize what you’re doing and gently bring yourself back to focusing on the present.
Secondly, by becoming observers of how we feel, we get a bit of distance between us and our thoughts and feelings that allows us to have a sense of clarity about them. All of a sudden, they’re not so overwhelming. For instance, if you wake up feeling upset or anxious and you’re not sure why, what can make these painful feelings so terrible is how they seem to come from out of nowhere and overwhelm you. You don’t know why you feel the way you feel and that makes it more nerve-racking. If you regularly wake up this way you might even let these feelings define you as you tell yourself that you’re an anxious person, like you’re somehow not normal.
But if you take the mindful approach you can view these painful feelings and sensations like any other, with a sense of clarity. That’s when the mystery goes away, and the stress becomes much easier to deal with. For instance, if you have a headache you don’t get upset about it. You might not know what caused it, but you know that it will pass and that its not a big deal. You’ve had headaches before, they’re normal, and your day won’t be ruined because of this one. What if you treated feeling anxious like that? You know that these anxious feelings will eventually pass just like any other thought or emotion and they’re nothing you have to beat yourself up over. With that kind of clarity, you can learn how to make yourself feel better and cope with this unpleasant feeling just like you would a headache.
The more you practice mindfulness the better you will be at staying present and accepting the thoughts and feelings as they come. The reason why mindfulness is so powerful is that it actually trains your brain and your body over time. At first, it might be difficult to practice mindfulness meditation for even a minute without it feeling uncomfortable or strange. But over time it becomes easier, as staying in the moment becomes more natural for you. You focus on being present and let the thoughts and feelings come and go with acceptance, if you get distracted or fixated on one particular thing, you simply notice what occurred and refocus your attention on the present. As you do this over and over, your focus becomes stronger and it gets easier to stay present. Its just like going to the gym: the more you go, the stronger you become and after a while exercises that seemed impossible become almost routine for you as you get more fit. Mindfulness is the same way.
As you practice mindfulness, even if only for a short time every day, you’ll notice how much it transforms you. By staying present in the moment, you’ll feel more at peace and every area of your life will improve. You’ll begin to view yourself and others more clearly, helping you deal with conflict and improving your relationships. Your focus will improve, which will help you prioritize the things that are important to you and allow you to take advantage of what you want to accomplish each day. And perhaps most importantly, you’ll learn to cope with stressful feelings and situations better than you ever have before, which will drastically improve your physical and mental health. As you can see, mindfulness is incredibly powerful and its no wonder why so many people are discovering why its such an essential part of living a healthy and happy life.